Oulipics.

Canada Wins the Oulipics

(Year 2001 Book-length English Language Competition)

 

Toward Criteria for Evaluating the Literary Merit of Constraint-Driven Literature and Being a Book Review of Eunoia and Ella Minnow Pea

William Gillespie 2002

Clarification: The Oulipo—“the sewing circle of potential literature”—holds monthly meetings in Paris to discuss writing experiments along the intersection of literature and mathematics. I have been trying to learn more about them for eight years. Although most of the literature written by members of the Oulipo is in French, the writing techniques they champion—formal constraints—can be applied across languages. As a result, their research has helped to inspire a small but international community of writers sharing compositional techniques. As writing under constraint is counterintuitive and often genuinely difficult, sometimes Oulipian works are described as though they were athletic or gymnastic feats.

The Olympics is some kind of international sporting event I saw on TV a couple of times when I was a kid.

The title of this essay, then, refers to an imaginary international literary sporting event in which a community of virtuosic Oulipian writers get together to share their research. Ideally, the Oulipics would be less a competition than an exhibition; however, for the purposes of this essay (written in the context of innumerable glowing reviews for Ella Minnow Pea that falsely assumed or implied that Dunn had invented the lipogram), I am assuming that the books in question are already locked in a competition (for recognition, readers, reviews, awards, and sales) and I wish to reframe that competition as a contest of writing rather than publicity.

In the promotional materials for Ella Minnow Pea, the editor states that it is the first book he has ever “acquired before finishing.” To my ear, this doesn't constitute the ringing endorsement it is meant to be. You can't judge the value of a novel without reading its ending, but you don't have to read a single word to be impressed by the fact of its being “a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable.” But the techniques used in Ella Minnow Pea were not invented by Mark Dunn, they have a history. A book with an typographic constraint is uncommon, to be sure, but when is the constraint a literary device and when is it a gimmick? Olympic gymnasts are awarded points both on the physical difficulty of their feats as well as their grace in executing them. Oulipian books need to be evaluated on their constraint and its application, but just as important are their style and content as well. Those of us who believe in the value of constrained works as serious literature need to be sure we evaluate such works for their literary merit.

 

Ella Minnow Pea:
A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable

by Mark Dunn
MacAdam/Cage Publishing
San Francisco/Denver
205 pages. $22.00

Eunoia
by Christian Bök
Coach House Books
Toronto
100 pages. $16.95

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY “CONSTRAINT”? For the purpose of this essay I will define constraint as “a writing procedure that explicitly rules out certain words altogether, or at certain times.”
     
WHAT IS THE CONSTRAINT? Ella Minnow Pea is progressively lipogrammatic: as the book progresses, the author's alphabet is reduced, disallowing more and more letters. Unlike other lipogrammatic novels (La Disparitions/A Void, Gadsby) which manage to adhere to proper grammar and mispelling, in Ella Minnow Pea words are not always spelled or used properly. The book begins with a full alphabet. The lipogrammatic progression is slow and tentative and seems designed to challenge the author as little as possible. The letters are dropped in an order that resembles the reverse of the English frequency alphabet (infrequent letters are dropped first): Z, Q, J, D, K, F, B, C, V, U, X, Y, H, G, A, E, I, R, S, T, W. When the book is a quarter over, the author has only dropped the letter Z. When the book is half-over, the author has dropped D, J, K, Q, and Z, none of which are very frequently-occurring letters in English. When the author finally drops A, E, I, R, S, and T (all at once), the book is approximately 97% over and the full constraint (using only LMNOP) is used only for 7 lines. In addition to misspellings, there are also moments when excluded letters are used anyway—moments framed in the story as disobedient characters using forbidden letters. Eunoia is an exhaustive univocalic novel: there is one section for each of the five vowels AEIOU; in each section no other vowels may be used. Words are spelled properly and sentences are grammatical. There are a few closing pieces that follow mostly related constraints, which, for the purpose of this essay I will consider appendices, the book proper being the section entitled “Eunoia.” You could describe this book as also “progressively lipogrammatic” because univocalic writing is lipogrammatic: by limiting the writer to a single vowel it purposefully excludes the four other vowels. (Y is suppressed in Eunoia) So each of the five sections of Eunoia is a lipogram on four vowels.
IS THE CONSTRAINT DIFFICULT TO USE? What Dunn did was not difficult. There exist two lipogrammatic novels in the English language that do not use the the most common letter E at all. Dunn omitted the letter E for only a few lines. The progression of the progressive lipogram was slow, easy, and despite this he allowed himself to cheat in various ways, many of which demonstrated questionable style (goofy phonetic misspellings and bad grammar). This is analogous to an Olympic gymnast slowly crawling from one end of the balance beam to the other, and awkwardly dismounting when three quarters of the way there. What Bök did was difficult. For the purposes of comparison, let's take the two most common words in the English language: “the” and “and.” Dunn could freely use the word “the” for the first 9/10ths of the book and “and” for the first 7/20ths of the book. Bök was able to use each of the two words “the” and “and” for 2/7ths of the book and never both at the same time. Bök's book is shorter which made his feat arguably easier but his writing is stronger which makes it arguably more difficult. What these percentages show is less a measure of comparative difficulty and more the author's willingness to challenge herself.
WAS THE CONSTRAINT A GOOD IDEA FOR A BOOK?

Yes! The constraint is an excellent idea for a book, particularly a novel. The progressive omission of letters has the potential to enhance the progression of the story. While the constraint will reduce the allowable vocabulary, at the beginning of the book the vocabulary is unconstrained, and so the author can use any word she wants, but for a limited time. Thus the author is free to set up any situation she likes. Given this, I would say that Dunn's constraint does not reduce the potential for a compelling story the way, say, an extended palindrome would. I might add that the epistolary form offered the author unused avenues to enhance the story while obeying the constraint by including types of documents other than personal letters. However, the passages in Ella Minnow Pea are all written in more or less the same verbose and cumbersome style.

Yes, although not as good an idea as was the constraint for Ella Minnow Pea. Dunn had a better idea for a book but was blown away by Bök's execution. Bök's idea would mean that each of the five sections would have an exclusive vocabulary. No word used in the first section could be reused in the fifth. This rules out any direct continuity or incremental progression, diminishing the potential for the book to have, say, an explicit narrative or conceptual development. You could not track the progress of a particular character or concept unless it changed its name at least four times. In fact, the five sections are arranged in alphabetic order (by vowel) presumably because the author wanted them in alphabetic order, not necessarily (but possibly) because that was the best possible sequence for the reader. The closure is formal and not narrative.

Eunoia is a great idea for a piece of writing for reasons unrelated to consistency or narrative progression. For one thing, by including each of the five vowels, it is exhaustive—most univocalic words in English are used somewhere, making Eunoia a sort of semi-indexed reference book. Also, univocalic writing has great potential to be musical because the use of a single vowel limits the number of vowel sounds, making the language resonant with assonance and rhyme.

     
WAS THE CONSTRAINT EXECUTED WELL?

Oulipic writing implies an effort to use proper spelling, proper grammar, and, most importantly, writing of literary quality. Without this effort, the constraint cannot create extraordinary language. So as an Oulipic judge I consider such shortcuts as bad grammar and spelling to be cheating, unless done in an artful fashion. One might validly pose the counterargument that these techniques are appropriate for the epistolary novel at hand because the writing is, after all, that of characters who are suffering from this unusual constraint unexpectedly in the story. Well, I would counter, if that is true then this book doesn't even belong in the Oulipics because the point of writing under constraint is not just to prevent familiar language, but to invoke new linguistic formulations. And if Ella Minnow Pea is not an Oulipian work (as its subtitle seems to promise), then it is resigned to be a novelty, gift, or humor book, and not literature. The author's job here is to write well in the voice of the characters under the extraordinary constraint and to make it plausible that the characters would write well under the constraint. After all, there already exist two lipogrammatic novels in the English language (Gadsby, A Void) as well as progressively-constrained novels (Alphabetic Africa). What would have made Ella Minnow Pea noteworthy would have been what makes any other novel noteworthy: exquisite writing. As it is, its reputation rests on it having an (admittedly well-chosen) variation on a literary technique that, according to Perec, dates back to antiquity.

The writing is dense and lyrical and the images fantastically imaginative. Similarities between each of the five sections in subject matter, style, pacing, and even duration, heighten the continuity and in so doing bring the necessary differences between the five sections (such as how they sound) into vivid contrast. There is never any sense that the author is suffering or staggering or indeed blocked or inhibited at all. An Oulipian is a runner who sprints faster when there are hurdles on the track.
     
IS THE WRITING BEAUTIFUL?

No. The writing style is verbose and stilted, like an imitation of Victorian prose. This style does not noticeably waver even though the book is composed of letters written by different characters experiencing increasing amounts of tension. While the tragedy of the story of Nollop is nicely counterpointed to the whimsical premise upon which the tragedy rests, I came away from reading the book with nothing like an insight into humanity or a residual tingling from an especially well-wrought passage.

Yes.
     

IS THE BOOK WELL-COMPOSED? IN OTHER WORDS: DOES IT CHANGE AS IT PROGRESSES OR IS IT FLAT? IS THERE A MOVEMENT?

The story of Nollop shows a definite movement, even if it proves at the end to be reversible. That characters die or are displaced in ways that are not cute and funny demonstrates that the book is capable of seriousness. There is even something that resembles foreshadowing to the attentive reader (the 32-letter sentence that resolves the story's conflict is sneakily revealed early on in the book). It is fair to say that the tension of the story escalates in a motion parallel to the movement of the constraint, which is a noteworthy feat.

Yes and no. The book is well-composed because of the author's efforts to bring parallels to the five sections. The movement, however, is more formal then thematic or narrative. As thrilling as the prose is, it feels more like a collection of short stories then a novel.
     
IS THE CONSTRAINT RELEVANT TO THE BOOK'S SUBJECT MATTER?

Yes. The constraint takes place on the story level. It is the characters, as well as the author, who must write lipogrammatically. While this sort of direct connection between a book's constraint and its subject matter is admirable, the premise of the story is so contrived and the characters so flat that this connection isn't as meaningful as it could be.

 

No. Although certain of the pages (such as the opening) refer to the constraint, I cannot say that what happens in the book is analogous to the formal structure. The constraint filters the language and the author shapes it.
     
IS THIS THE LAST BOOK LIKE THIS THAT NEEDS TO BE WRITTEN?

No. In this book, the constraint is a terrible thing with dire consequences. The story of Ella Minnow Pea reflects the popular misconception that writing under constraint is damaged, limited, impeded writing, and this becomes an excuse for Dunn not even to bother working toward a rippingly good climax. But what if the application of the progressive lipogram had desirable results? What if Dunn and the characters welcomed the opportunity to write in ways they had never before written? And what if the progressive lipogram were applied with the same sort of rigor Bök uses? Then this book would have at least 26 sections, each of which would make a reasonable effort to be scintillating.

Yes. Eunoia uses its constraint exhaustively (the author claims to use 98% of the available vocabulary) and is, I would say, unsurpassably well-written. In terms of beauty, this writing can hold its own against any text yet penned. Univocalic writing should certainly continue to be used, but I would be hesitant to write a progressively univocalic book-length work in the shadow of Eunoia.
     
Spineless Books.